Just east of Levittown, America's quintessential planned suburb, Lane Twitchell looks up a side road and grins.
"There!" he shouts, jabbing a finger into the Long Island air. "Right there! Make a left. That's IT. That's perfect!"The object of his excitement is a small neighborhood of tract houses - the very fruit of suburbia. Shingles. Aluminum siding. Square-cut stone. Two-car garages. Even a front done in Pepto Bismol pink.
For Twitchell - artist, Mormon, critic of suburbia and muddler-through of all themes American - this is nirvana and purgatory wrapped into one neatly mowed package.
Some artists find inspiration in nature, others in the human face and body. Twitchell's canvas is the U.S. suburb, circa 1960 to 1975.
The 30-year-old artist has a theory. He believes that the soul of his nation, whatever sort of soul it possesses, lies in the communities that sit on the edge of its cities. He's not sure yet how - or why. But in his paintings - and in his mind - he is doing his best to find out.
"What I'm talking about is the formal advance of American civilization," he says. "And the suburbs - whether you like them or not, whatever you think of them - are at the forward edge."
When he contemplates those suburbs, Twitchell always comes back to the "house."
His paintings of suburban houses are spare and filled with angles and sharp contrasts - strict formalism, as he calls it. They resemble nothing more than colored extensions of architectural blueprints. But there is something beyond the straight depiction.
In each, the sky is strangely in focus - almost too focused. The angles are too perfect, the front lawn too manicured, the sidewalk and curb too uncracked and freshly poured, the landscape too precisely flat and angular.
This neighborhood of the mind has been Twitchell's focus for much of his life - unconsciously for a long time, consciously for the past three years. He has painted it a dozen times and more.
Twitchell has a master's in fine arts from the School of Visual Arts in New York City and a bachelor of fine arts from the University of Utah. He has exhibited his paintings at galleries in New York and Salt Lake City. The most recent is a series of paintings, "12 Famous Mormons," and part of the Artists in the Marketplace Program at the Bronx Museum in New York.
He lives in Brooklyn, in a brownstone near a subway stop. He rarely drives, as suburbanites must, as his parents still do daily. By living in this manner, he has made himself an outsider in the suburban outback so he can better see it.
Smiles come easily to Twitchell, and he is enthusiastic about his world. He wants to make it better. He married a lovely young woman. He is a gallery manager at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.
But there is darkness in these houses he paints, and he is struggling to recognize that darkness.
He grew up in Ogden, the child of Mormons who were the children of Mormons going all the way back to people like James Dalley, Boletta Bertleson and John Pidding Jones, who put all their worldly possessions into handcarts in 1852 and walked from St. Louis to Salt Lake City to build new lives.
Utah was their frontier. And, as Mormons do, Twitchell admires his heritage. He keeps pictures - video stills of a rugged 1940s Darryl Zanuck movie about Mormon pioneers Joseph Smith and Brigham Young - on the wall in the studio corner of his apartment.
And yet the frontier that Twitchell inherited is hardly rugged. Instead, it is "the pinnacle of domesticity," miles upon miles of sprawl, little tract-house satellites orbiting the Salt Lake Temple - the heart of the Mormon church.
It is this Mormonism, more than anything, that has led him to the house's front door. In fact, the paintings began while he was doing door-to-door missionary work in Fairfax County, Va., another hard-core concentration of suburbia.
"The thing that struck me most prominently was how empty it is for the majority of the day," he remembers. "Part of the method of Mormon proselytizing is to get your Mormon friends to introduce you to their neighbors. But there, nobody has any contact with their neighbors."
Twitchell proselytizes no more. But the vision stuck with him. He got to thinking about how Mormonism - and American frontierism, really - was a combination of "radicality and typicality." And the houses, the neighborhoods he paints today are, as he sees it, the same way.